In a summer of laments about young people with $75,000 college degrees who are flipping burgers or digging ditches, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has some sobering findings: one of five college graduates in the 1980s had jobs that did not require college degrees. Many, though not all, of these jobs were low-wage, dead-end positions.
Workers with bachelor of arts degrees did fare far better, on average, during those years than those without sheepskins.
But while the pay of the typical B.A. rose handily during the decade, the incomes of the unfortunate fifth with non-professional jobs -- more than 5 million -- stagnated or even declined. Such graduates saw little, if any, pecuniary benefits from their investments.
"The BLS study says that college education is not a risk-free investment," said Professor David Bloom, a labor economist at Columbia University. "Students and parents should think just as carefully as when they invest in a business or a stock."
Economists have long maintained that getting a college degree is a good economic investment even after the tuition bills and time away from the work force are toted up. To calculate how much of a payback college graduates can expect, economists compare how much they earn with the wages of workers who do not go to college.
That was what two Labor Department economists, Daniel Hecker and Kristina Shelley, were looking at when they found that more college graduates than ever were holding jobs usually
performed by those with only high school diplo
In the late 1960s, the Labor Department reckons, only 1 in 10 graduates held jobs that did not require degrees.
In the 1980s -- a time of economic expansion and long before the 1990-91 recession hit -- the ratio was 1 in 5, with 1 million college graduates working as sales clerks; 1.5 million as typists, file clerks and phone answerers; and another 1.3 million laboring on assembly lines or construction sites.
"Twenty years ago, employers pursued graduates no matter what," said Ronald E. Kutscher, associate commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Now they're more concerned with what you studied and how well you did."
What's more, fewer B.A.'s may be able to count on landing "college-level" jobs in the future.
The Labor Department economists, writing in the department's July Monthly Labor Review, predicted that college enrollments would outpace the growth of professional and managerial jobs, swelling the share of college graduates who become file clerks and assembly line workers to 30 percent or more by 2005.
If they are right, not everyone who is heading for a campus this fall may be making the right decision.
"For a substantial fraction of students, the payoff may be better elsewhere," Mr. Kutscher said. "A good electrician is likely to make more than a college graduate that ends up as a file clerk."
Take Louise Johnson, a 39-year-old University of Massachusetts legal studies graduate who earns about $35,000 a year repairing foreign cars at a small garage in Watertown, Mass., near Boston.
"My learning would have been speeded up if I'd gone to trade school," said Ms. Johnson, who struggled to complete her B.A., she said, largely to please her father, a machinist who saw a college degree as "a ticket for getting ahead in life."
The Labor Department's note of caution comes at a time when college enrollments are at record levels, tuition is at an all-time high and the most costly item in Bill Clinton's economic plan is a program to send everyone to college who wants to go.
It also comes at a time when the overall unemployment rate remains uncomfortably high and recent graduates have had to struggle to land paid work of any kind.
The unemployment rate among college graduates in their early 20s hit 6.9 percent last year -- not nearly as high as for their less-educated peers, but two percentage points higher than in 1990.
Behind the Labor Department's gloomy prediction of growing underemployment of college graduates is a projection that jobs requiring college degrees will not sprout as fast in the 1990s as before -- a projection that some economists do not agree with.
At the same time, the Labor Department economists expect college enrollments to keep climbing. Last fall, 62.4 percent of high school graduates left for college vs. 49.3 percent in the fall of 1980.
"As enrollment goes up, the supply of new B.A.'s does too, and relative wages start to come down," said Professor Bloom of Columbia. "But these kinds of shifts take a decade."
The more rapid growth of enrollments than professional jobs implies that marginal students who go to marginal schools could wind up in "bad" jobs -- ones where prospects for pay and promotions are relatively poor.
And the surge in enrollments should increase competition among graduates and gradually whittle down their average pay advantage over the degreeless, economists say.
Some, including Professor Bloom, warn against taking the findings too literally and concluding that young people would be better off heading straight from the senior prom into the job pool.